Tackling Tongariro - the Mountain of Myth and Legend

Published: February 9th 2017
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Trail marker with Ngaurahoe rising behind
In Maori mythology, there once stood four great mountains in the area now protected within Tongariro National Park – Tongariro, Taranaki, Tauhara and Putauaki – all of whom were male. When a beautiful female mountain named Pihanga arrived nearby, all four of them fell in love with her. But since only one of them could have her – and with boys being boys after all – they fought over her. When the great battle of the mountains was over, it was the volcano Tongariro who stood victorious, having blown himself apart in order to prove his love to Pihanga. The other three mountains were given until sunrise the following morning to get as far away as they could, before they would be turned to stone forever.

Taranaki fled westwards at a great rate, and by the time the sun came up he had made it all the way to the West Coast, where he now stands guard over New Plymouth. Putauaki headed north-east to try his luck with Whakaari (White Island), but she threw herself into the sea to escape his clutches and left him stranded overlooking the Bay of Plenty. Tauhara however lingered over his loss, and by the
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Heading up the Mangatepopo Valley towards Tongariro and Ngaurahoe
time the sun came up he had made it only to the far end of Lake Taupo, where he was condemned to spend eternity watching the two lovers from across the lake. Clearly the union between Tongariro and Pihanga was a successful one, as they had two sons – Ruapehu and Ngaurahoe – both of whom have since exceeded their father Tongariro in size.

These three volcanoes have long been considered tapu (sacred) by the Maori, who for a long time sought to prevent anyone from climbing them. In the mid-to-late 19th century, the local iwi (tribe) Ngati Tuwharetoa was put under considerable pressure to hand over their lands to farmers, loggers and rival tribes, until their high chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV came up with a visionary solution: on the 23rd of September 1887 he gifted the mountains to the people of Aotearoa / New Zealand so that they may be protected for eternity. As a result of his actions the volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngaurahoe and Ruapehu became just the world's fourth national park in 1894; and since then Tongariro National Park has been recognized as a dual World Heritage Site for both it's natural and cultural
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Ngaurahoe from below

Having seen plenty of the three volcanoes from the other end of Lake Taupo in days previous, Linda and I had come to Tongariro National Park – just like everyone else who visits – to see these three magnificent mountains up close. And what better way to take a closer inspection than by tackling the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing – surely the most famous day-hike in the country?! All we needed was for the clear weather of the previous five days to continue for just one more day...

Having spent a peaceful night at the Mangahuia DOC campground located within the national park, we awoke on the last day of January, packed our bags and fixed ourselves a travel mug of coffee each, and hit the road bright and early bound for the Ketetahi car park at the end of the trail – trying our best to ignore the low-lying blanket of clouds that obscured the mountains from view. From Ketetahi we had booked a shuttle bus to take us back to the start of the trail at the Mangatepopo car park, allowing us to tackle the walk at our own pace without having to worry about
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Hikers crossing the barren expanse of South Crater
making any bus departure deadlines... and thus avoiding any repeat of our experience on the Coast Track south of Sydney from about fifteen months ago!

Setting out from the Mangatepopo end at 9am, we could already see the clouds starting to burn off as the sun rose higher in the sky, and within minutes of starting out I was already stopping to change into shorts – the first of many wardrobe adjustments I would end up making throughout the day! Before long we were being treated to our first uninterrupted views of the perfect pyramidal cone of Ngaurahoe (famously immortalized as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) thrusting skyward to our right; while the irregular profile of Tongariro lay dead ahead. Our route would take us up to the saddle between these two close neighbours, from where a side-trip to the summit of either one (Ngaurahoe standing 2287m high and Tongariro 1967m) would be possible... though one look at the steep scree-covered slopes of Ngaurahoe told us that we would most definitely not be following in Frodo and Sam's footsteps!

After following the Mangatepopo Stream as far as the waterfall at Soda Springs, we tackled
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View of Blue Lake from the Tongariro summit ridge
the first serious climb of the day (crossing old lava flows from Ngaurahoe for much of the way) to South Crater – whose dead-flat, sand-coloured, rock-strewn appearance resembled some sort of Martian landscape. With Tongariro rising to our left and Ngaurahoe towering over us to the right (and a veritable conga line of other hikers stretching out in front of us) we proceeded up the rocky ridge at the far end of South Crater – during which the penetrating westerly wind gusts immediately had me changing back into warmer clothing – before eventually reaching a junction just short of the highest point on the trail.

After pausing to scoff down our containers of couscous salad (which Linda had diligently prepared the night before) we set off on the 3km side-trail to the summit of Tongariro – which climbed and dipped frequently despite only gaining about a hundred metres in elevation overall. Unfortunately, just as we arrived at the rocky summit of Tongariro the clouds that had been blowing in from the west all morning finally closed in around us – allowing us only the occasional fleeting glimpse of Ruapehu peering over the shoulder of Ngaurahoe, and not much else.
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Red Crater with Ngaurahoe rising behind (it was Linda who spotted the resemblance)
Admittedly by the time we made it back to the junction half-an-hour later the clouds had already dissipated – though of course by then Ruapehu was once again hidden from view!

But if we thought the scenery thus far had been impressive – and it had certainly been that – we were in for one hell of a treat, because the best scenery of all was still to come. Reaching the highest point of the crossing (at around 1900 metres above sea level) shortly after re-joining the main trail, we immediately had the stunning Blue Lake shimmering in the sunshine directly in front of us; while over to our right the gaping wound of Red Crater seemed to grow ever larger with every downhill step, as the equally fearful-looking Ngaurahoe rose up beyond the crater.

And then just when we thought the views couldn't possibly get any better, no sooner had we begun the surprisingly-steep descent alongside Red Crater (achieved most successfully by those of us who chose to adopt the 'slalom skiing' technique on the loose rocky slope – as opposed to those who tried to slowly inch their way down step-by-step, only to end up on
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Emerald Lakes from above
their arses!) than we were treated to the mesmerising sight of the three Emerald Lakes sporting their other-worldly hues at the base of the ridge. Not only was it the most spectacular panorama of the whole day, it was one of the most epic views I have ever laid eyes upon... and for someone who has hiked extensively throughout the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss Alps, Hawai'i and Australia - that's saying something!

Tearing ourselves away from this visual feast in order to avoid being swamped by a tidal wave of other hikers, we made our way across the flat, barren expanse of North Crater; before climbing up to the shoreline of Blue Lake – at which point we finally got our first good look at Ruapehu's snow-topped bulk in the near distance.

Leaving Blue Lake behind, we finally bid farewell to the jaw-dropping scenery of the crossing's middle stages (the high point of the day, both literally and figuratively) though if it's fair to say that the remainder of the walk couldn't quite live up to those same lofty standards, then it's also fair to say that it was a pretty damn fine walk nonetheless! With the beautiful
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The Alpine Crossing heading down towards Ketetahi
blue expanse of Lake Rotoaira spread out in front of us for all but the last few kilometres of the walk, and the far larger Lake Taupo (which likewise sports a single island amid it's vast expanse) clearly visible beyond that for the next hour or so, it was all we could do to keep our eyes on the trail ahead.

Pausing briefly at the Ketatahi Hut for one final change of attire (the wind and clouds having ceased to bother us by this point) we made our way down into the forest – the first time all day we had found ourselves below the tree line – for the final forty-five minute walk to the car park at Ketatahi. And though both Linda and I were pretty well buggered by the time we made it back to the car (having covered close to 25km with about 1000m of ascent in seven-and-a-half hours) we were in total agreement that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the finest walks that either of us has ever done!

Having been blessed with six straight days of sunshine, we were hardly surprised to be met with cloudy skies the next morning,
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Silica Rapids near Whakapapa
and so we left the campground at Mangahuia and headed up to Whakapapa village - the highest permanently-inhabited settlement in New Zealand at 1140m above sea level - at the base of Ruapehu. With Linda nursing some sore muscles from the Alpine Crossing, I headed out solo on a two-hour return hike to the nearby Silica Rapids, with the trail threading through beautiful forest interspersed with occassional swampy clearings, before reaching a series of cascades flowing over a bright golden streambed – a result of silica build-up from the underlying rock.

In spite of the light drizzle that fell for the rest of the afternoon, Linda joined me after lunch as we set off on the two-hour loop track to Taranaki Falls, where a 20-metre-high waterfall plunges off a precipice into a boulder-ringed plunge pool. Crossing wind-blown moorland under an ever-darkening sky on the way back to the village – and with the great bulk of Ruapehu still conspicuous by it's absence - the scenery bore a strong resemblance to the Scottish Highlands, with which I became so familiar during my year in Scotland back in 2011/12.

With the rain getting steadily heavier as the evening progressed, the
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Taranaki Falls, also near Whakapapa
only thing for it was to take shelter in the heated dining area at the holiday park and make use of the free wifi – not to mention the first showers and washing machines we'd seen in days – while coming up with a plan for the rest of the week. But if we were disappointed to be forced down out of the mountains without having been able to tackle the climb to Ruapehu's Crater Lake, this was more than offset by the opportunity to stay with a couple of great friends of mine, Steve & Ros, whom I had first met on a sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands just over a decade ago; and who now live in Raumati Beach on the Kapiti Coast, just north of Wellington.

So the next day, with the rain still falling and all three of the national park's volcanoes completely hidden from view, we tackled the long and boring drive from Whakapapa all the way to Raumati Beach; which ended with a drawn-out crawl along the highway as it took us an hour to get from Otaki to Paraparaumu just twenty kilometres away. But if the journey had been somewhat arduous,
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Never-ending set of steps on the Kapiti Coastal Escarpment Pathway
it was worth every minute of it to finally meet up with Steve and Ros again – who since I had last seen them exactly ten years ago had settled in New Zealand, gotten married on a beach in Auckland and had two adorable kids (Elsie and Sam, now 5 and 3) whom Linda and I were able to meet for the first time.

After enduring a day to forget on Thursday - when it didn't stop raining from the moment we woke up until long after we had gone to bed - Linda and I enjoyed a long-overdue sleep-in on Friday morning (which was hardly surprising given that we were sleeping on a real bed for the first time in over a month!) before finally rising sometime around 11am to be greeted by a miraculous blue sky. Not wanting to let this unexpectedly good weather go to waste, we headed slightly further down the Kapiti Coast from Paraparaumu to Paekakariki, before ditching the van and heading off on foot along the Coastal Escarpment Pathway (referred to locally as the 'Stairway to Heaven') which forms a 10-km section of the 3000km+ Te Araroa (The Long Pathway) trail, that stretches
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Swing Bridge shortly after the Stairway to Heaven
the entire length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south.

Living up to it's nickname, the narrow trail climbed high up the coastal cliffs as it followed the spectacular coastline from Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, looking down on both the highway and railway line which hug the shoreline. Negotiating numerous sets of steep steps – as well as a couple of high swing bridges towards the end – the trail offered incredible 180 degree views for pretty much it's entire length, whilst also raising the excitement level due to the complete absence of safety barriers along the way!

Returning to Raumati Beach for a second night with Steve & Ros, we enjoyed a delicious barbecue dinner followed by another evening full of reminiscing about past adventures, during which it became pretty clear that our hosts have found their current settled life to be just as rewarding as their travel days of old – which was good news for us, given that we have 'started considering the possibility' of having kids ourselves (though the phrase 'settling down' still scares the shit out of me – even at 37 years of age!).
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With Linda, Steve, Ros, Sam and Elsie in Raumati Beach

Leaving the Kapiti Coast on Saturday morning, we knocked off the remaining forty or so kilometres to the nation's capital city, Wellington, which we had heard nothing but good reports about – except where the weather was concerned. In fact Wellington proudly proclaims itself to be the windiest capital city in the world, yet when we arrived the sun was shining and the winds were far more moderate than we had become used to. Only later would we discover that we were being lulled into a false sense of security...

Stopping off first at the top of Mount Victoria for a scenic lunch and a panoramic overview of Wellington, we couldn't help but be impressed by the city's picturesque natural setting - with the city centre tucked up against the natural harbour of Port Nicholson, whose oval-shaped expanse is sheltered on all sides by a ring of steep hills. Vancouver it might not be, but it's certainly the most naturally gifted of all the towns and cities on the North Island that we have seen – and we've certainly seen most of them by now!

After lunch we went for a wander around the city, first following the
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Oriental Bay Beach in Wellington
shoreline past the busy sandy beaches of Oriental Bay and the national museum known as Te Papa – which we would become more intimate with the next day – and then cruising down Cuba Street (the epicentre of Wellington's nightlife) before finishing up at the Botanical Gardens, where we took the easy way out and hopped on board the old 'cable car' (actually a funicular railway) for a leisurely ride back down to the city centre.

With plenty of sunlight left in the day we then hopped back on the expressway for the super scenic drive out to the Catchpool Valley DOC campground in Rimutaka Forest Park – about 45 minutes drive from Wellington - which first led us out of the city through a pair of road tunnels, then hugged the shoreline of Port Nicholson all the way to it's northern end in Lower Hutt (possibly the least imaginatively-named town ever) before climbing steeply up and over the mountains flanking Port Nicholson and finally winding through a beautiful green valley fringed with high forested hills and bathed in the golden glow of late afternoon sunshine... what an amazing end to the day! And given that we had purchased
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Townhouses in Oriental Bay
another $40 weekly campsite pass online, we only had to spend two nights at the campground in Catchpool Valley (which costs $26 per night for two adults) and the pass would already have paid for itself – so nturally we decided to do just that!

Returning to Wellington on Sunday, we took the advice of everyone we have met who has been to the city and visited the beloved national museum on the waterfront – Te Papa Tongarewa. Thankfully we didn't have any other plans for the day, as we ended up spending pretty much the entire day there – two hours before lunch and another three hours after lunch! With an entire level devoted to Maori displays and artefacts - including a full-size, magnificently-carved marae (Maori meeting house) and an audio-visual exhibit detailing the origins of the Ka Mate haka (made famous by the All Blacks, who regularly perform the traditional challenge before rugby matches) - it presented us with the perfect opportunity to delve a little more deeply into the fascinating history of the Maori, whom it is believed first arrived on the islands now known as New Zealand (or Aotearoa – meaning the Land of the
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View of Wellington from the top cable car station
Long White Cloud) from Polynesia around 800 – 1000 years ago.

On another level were displays dealing with New Zealand's natural history, including everything from native birds (most notably the kiwi and the now-extinct moa - a massive flightless bird that once made the emu and cassowary look like mere sparrows) and introduced mammals (of which the villain of the piece would have to be the Australian possum - that now numbers around 70 million and wreaks havoc on New Zealand's native wildlife) to sea creatures, including one of only three living colossal squid ever captured (and the only one to be put on display anywhere in the world).

Perhaps fittingly, we concluded our exploration of the museum in the aptly-titled Awesome Forces exhibit, where various interactive displays detail the role that volcanoes and earthquakes have played (and continue to do so) in shaping the landscape of the Shaky Isles, including a room that shakes violently as though it were in the grip of an earthquake! Alongside this was a live feed from the GeoNet website, which Steve in Raumati Beach had previously shown us and which posts an alert whenever there is any sort of earthquake or
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Boats at anchor in Port Nicholson
tremor recorded anywhere in New Zealand – and sure enough only ten minutes earlier there had been a tremor measuring over 3 on the Richter scale not far from Kaikoura, which had been seriously affected by a strong earthquake not long before we left for New Zealand.

This reinforced something Steve had warned us about - that on the South Island in general (and around Kaikoura in particular) we would almost certainly feel the earth moving at times due to small tremors. It's easily forgotten for those of us that don't live anywhere near a fault-line that earthquakes are something that happen all the time – it's just that we only ever hear about the big ones on the news. What Linda and I hadn't taken into account is that for every large earthquake that does make the news there are likely dozens (if not hundreds) of smaller ones afterwards that go un-reported, as the fault-line begins to settle down again. We weren't quite sure whether this was something to look forward to or not; we could only hope that if – or rather when – it does happen we'll be safely tucked away in our campervan with no
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Inside The Hanging Ditch in Welllington
potentially destructive hazards nearby... though presumably one doesn't get to choose when or how an earthquake strikes!

After finally tearing ourselves away from the treasure trove of information that is Te Papa, we returned to the campground at Catchpool Valley for a second night; only to then end up right back at Te Papa the next day for New Zealand's national day, Waitangi Day – which commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi signed by both the Crown of England and hundreds of Maori chiefs way back in 1840... and over which legal disputes are still being settled to this day.

Our reason for returning to Te Papa was merely one of convenience though, as we had discovered the day before as we were leaving the museum that campervans are allowed to stay overnight in the outdoor section of the car park, provided that a valid ticket has been purchased. This was music to our ears, since we not only needed somewhere to park in the city, but also somewhere to spend the night so that I wouldn't have to drive anywhere after undertaking what I planned to be a fairly substantial craft beer-related pub crawl!

After thoroughly enjoying
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Leaving Wellington on the inter-island ferry
watching a performance from a local school group (which combined a variety of songs, dances and war cries) on a stage not far from Te Papa, we headed off into the centre of town to indulge my passion for the amber nectar, and with the 'true Wellington' having finally presented itself – which is to say the wind was threatening to blow us over whenever we set foot outside – it merely gave us the perfect excuse for spending the entire day inside (of pubs, of course)! Only when we tried to get to sleep in the campervan that night did we truly begin to appreciate the strength of the Wellington wind though, as we passed a sleepless night being rocked violently from side-to-side in much the same way as we had in the 'earthquake simulator' room in Te Papa!

Bring on the South Island...!

Additional photos below
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View of Wellington from Mount Victoria - take one
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View of Wellington from Mount Victoria - take two

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